Back-to-School Reads for Us Grownups

Sep 12, 2019

It’s Back-to-School! with Jonathan Franzen 
By Rebecca Howard
Tulsa City-County Library 

I can still recall the gnawing anxiety that would start building every summer right after the 4th of July. Suddenly everywhere you turned there would be reminders that school was resuming in a few short weeks. I loved learning, but people not so much. As a socially awkward, highly anxious kid, I was much more nervous about other students than I was about any math homework. “It gets better” wasn’t around when I was in school, but it does, it did, get better.

Still, there’s something irresistible to me about a book that skewers the optimism of the best, brightest, and most beautiful—one that peels away the glossy sheen of those back to school circulars and lets us see the messy and dysfunctional families inside. This is what the compulsively readable new novel by Bruce W. Holsinger, The Gifted School, delivers.

Holsinger is a new author to me, although he’s published novels before The Gifted School. Meg Wolitzer had a blurb on the front cover, and another reviewer said it was like a combination of Big Little Lies and Jonathan Franzen—SOLD!  I’m a relatively slow reader, but I read this 450-page novel in a couple of days.  Set in the fictionalized Colorado town of Crystal (inspired by the author’s time in Boulder), this is the story of four families vying for the admission of their children into the prestigious Crystal Academy, a school for exceptionally gifted children. 

The Gifted School was like so many other novels of domestic life that I’ve loved. I imagine many of those stories starting with the shiny, happy commercials about going back to school and the promise of a new year—Number 2 pencils and a fresh start. These types of books aren’t for everyone, but I think the reason I love them is that they let us imagine what it would be if the world knew our imperfections. 

As I started thinking about read-a-likes for The Gifted School, I realized many of the social satires about family life that I’ve loved involve schools in the plot. So, if you’re interested in going back to anxietyville with the smugness of a grown-up who made it, give these books a try (after you read The Gifted School, of course). 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Elite college, Greek scholars, murder--A book about terrible people that you won’t be able to put down. A contemporary classic. 

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Boarding school angst. Never been to boarding school? Yep, me either. I was still riveted by the minefields of ambition, sexuality, and alienation explored in Sittenfeld’s debut novel. 

Election and anything else by Tom Perrotta
A darkly comic story about a student council election run amuck and one of the best antiheroes created—Tracy Flick. 

The phrase “darkly humorous” comes up often when describing these types of books, so, again, these novels will not be for every reader. But, if you like your characters with a healthy dose of moral ambiguity, I think these offer a juicy escape. Check out this list for more of my back-to-school reading recommendations.